USU professor trying to solve wild horse overpopulation problem

Apr 20, 2023, 9:49 PM | Updated: Apr 21, 2023, 9:17 am

HEFNER, Utah — Horses are long considered a symbol of the American West. There are well over 80-thousand wild horses and burros across the western U.S. and they’re a constant concern for both wildlife managers and animal activists.

Utah State University professor Terry Messmer called it a problem that his generation created.

“The 1971 Act said horses are important, they’re valuable, they need to be part of the landscape,” Messmer said.

He pointed out that the animals are not native and they’re exhausting the resources for other animals and themselves.

“Three are no native predators that prey on wild horses and so you really have a system that’s out of balance,” he said.

Thursday he pulled high school and college students into the discussion and took them to a sage grouse lek, or mating ground near Henefer.

“When the population of horses doubles, the risk of loss of sage grouses increases by 90%,” Messmer said.

There were few of the birds visible Thursday, but Messmer said the point is in showing how one at-risk species is being impacted by another that is overpopulated.

He said his generation may have created the problem by trying too hard to protect the wild horses. He’d like the younger generation to learn to work together and find some better solutions.

Among the current efforts is the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro program.

“We came in knowing a little, but I feel like we came out knowing a lot more about the process of how everything is run here,” Asley Welker, a student at Mountain Crest High School said.

Welker and Hannah Pulsipher, another student from Mountain Crest, learned Thursday how the program rounds up horses, training some to be sold, and keeping others at facilities where they will live out their lives.

“And they care so deeply about each and every one of them,” Pulsipher said.

The program is controversial with some advocates who say the roundups can injure and traumatize the horses and some may be later sold for slaughter despite the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to curtail that practice.

“I think one thing we definitely should do is educate more people and kind of get more of, like a broadcast on what’s going on here and how we are handling the horses,” Sophie Smith a biology student at USU said.

The BLM has also tried darting horses with contraceptives that work for about a year at a time.

Still Messmer said what we’re doing now isn’t working, and it’s costing taxpayers about $80 million a year.

“What we’ve done is we’ve kicked this can down the road for 50 years now and we’re leaving this problem for the youth of America to also solve,” Messmer said.

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USU professor trying to solve wild horse overpopulation problem